Monday, April 02, 2007

It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

On Friday, I asked you for some opinions concerning children’s television. You responded thoughtfully and in depth. Now, it’s my turn and I hope I can return the favor.

I first asked you for some general feelings about Fred “Mister” Rogers. Me? I think Fred Rogers was a living, walking saint among us.

When you watched Fred Rogers, there was absolutely no pretense. What you saw was the real man. That same gentleness and childlike quality displayed on the screen was present always. He was not an actor. You may be surprised to find out what he actually was.

Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister. His special charge, given upon his ordination, was to minister to children through the media. He did so – and continues to do so, even after death - with amazing grace. He has been a part of TV, in one way or another, for well over 50 years now.

He had planned to become a minister while still a very young man. He was attending Rollins College, in Florida, earning a degree in music composition. The plan was that he would enter the seminary after graduation. However, on a visit to home – Pittsburgh – he saw television for the first time. What he saw appalled him. It was a children’s show and there were people hitting each other in the face with pies.

If there was one thing that made Fred Rogers truly mad, it was when one person demeaned another person. This feeling stemmed from his childhood. He had been a fat kid and teased a lot because of it. He developed a strong sense of advocacy for the underdog. What he now saw on this new medium was despicable to him. Fred thought that hitting someone in the face with a pie was about as demeaning as it gets. He thought it was a horrible lesson to be teaching children. And, at that moment, he changed his plans. He decided to go into television.

Since television was in its infancy, it wasn’t as hard to get into as one might think it would be for a man with no previous experience. Using his musical degree as a way to open doors, Fred landed a job with NBC in New York, becoming stage manager for The Kate Smith Show and other musical programs.

After gaining valuable insight into how television worked, he went to WQED, a fledgling public television station back in his hometown of Pittsburgh. This was his first opportunity to actually do something for children. He, along with a woman named Josie Carey, created a show called The Children’s Corner. Josie Carey was the host, while Fred was never seen on camera. He stayed behind the scenes, manipulating and providing voices for puppets, writing songs, etc.

(Meanwhile, during his lunch hours, he worked towards his degree in divinity. It would be some seven years of lunch hours later before he finally became an ordained minister. During this time, he also married his wife, Joanne, whom he had met while at Rollins.)

After his ordination, he received a call from the Canadian Broadcasting Company. They wanted Fred to develop a children’s show for them. He assumed that he would once again operate out of sight, as writer and puppeteer, but the head of the CBC had seen Fred interact with children and what he saw was a man with a gift. He knew that if Fred could get that quality to come through on camera, it would be something special. And thus was born a show known as MisteRogers.

He was “Mister” because, despite changing from suit coat to sweater and dress shoes to sneakers on every show, he remained an authority figure, albeit an extremely friendly one. He would be akin to an uncle or perhaps a very nice neighbor (or, as he aged, a kindly and gentle grandfather, which he himself had become in real life by the time he stopped production of the show on PBS almost forty years later.)

The Canadian show was relatively short-lived, but Fred took the concept back across the border and started Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. It was, and remains, the most relaxed children’s show on television; thirty minutes of peaceful talk, thoughtful songs, whimsical visits to a very well-delineated “Neighborhood Of Make Believe”, and pacing that encourages children to express their emotions freely, but in ways that will not hurt others.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I believed Fred Rogers to have been a saint walking among us. I came to this conclusion through both personal interaction and then further reading concerning his life.

I wrote a letter to him, back in the early 90’s, asking him a few technical questions concerning the show. As you may know, I’m involved in what might be loosely termed “show business,” although in an extremely tangential way. In any case, I was interested in how certain aspects of his show were created and performed. I expected a short reply, if any at all, knowing that I was asking for an expenditure of his personal time.

Instead, Fred Rogers replied with a multi-page handwritten letter, explaining in great detail the answers to my questions. In addition, he included 15 or 20 pages of printout material concerning the show, as well as an autographed photo personally inscribed to both MY WIFE and me.

(I had told him that we both watched the show, even though we had no children. This was the truth. MY WIFE and I find the show to be extremely relaxing, the video equivalent of a martini after work.)

To say that I was impressed by his response would be understating the matter. I had written similar letters to a few different performers whose work I admired. Some remain unanswered to this day. Those that did answer did so by dashing off a couple of quick lines. Fred Rogers was the only one who sent me a handwritten in-depth reply and it was obvious that he had given my questions quite a bit of his time and effort.

From that point, Rogers could do no wrong as far as I was concerned. And from everything I’ve ever seen or read concerning him, Fred Rogers did no wrong, period.

Last week, I had the great pleasure of reading a wonderful book about Fred’s life. It was written by Amy Hollingsworth and is called The Simple Faith Of Mister Rogers. It details her relationship with Fred Rogers, which blossomed following her having done an interview of him for television, and the ways in which he infused his shows with his strongly-held religious beliefs. I had little doubt Fred was a good man BEFORE I read this book. AFTER reading it, I am of the opinion that there have been few who walked this earth with a more profound spirituality.

Reading this book has re-energized my own sense concerning what a Christian should do. Since finishing it, I have tried to keep Fred’s example of patience and forbearance in mind, while attempting to see that of Christ which is alive in others. I’m no saint, by any means, nor do I think I ever will be, but I hope I’m able to hold on to some of the lessons that Mister Rogers has taught me, even at this advanced age for childhood.

(Don’t worry – I’ll still be obscene, free with my opinions and otherwise the asshole I’ve always been here. I don’t think any of that is necessarily at odds with being a Christian. Anyway, one of the most important lessons Fred teaches is to be your honest self and that people can like you just the way you are.)

(One thing I think I should clear up is the seeming dichotomy between my liking Fred Rogers and also liking, say, The Three Stooges. He found people being hit with pies demeaning. I find it funny. To each his own.

OK, that’s a bit too flippant. I look at it this way: He was seeing people hitting each other with pies as being a bad object lesson for children. Maybe so. I think it depends upon the child in question. I love slapstick comedy. I also love violent cartoons, i.e., Tom & Jerry. I never considered hitting someone on the head with a frying pan as a way to truly solve problems, nor do I have an urge to run a ripsaw across anyone’s noggin. I was able to determine what was reality, and what was humor, at an early age. This was largely because I had parents who made sure I knew the difference. If a kid has less insight and non-caring parents, maybe it would be a different story; I’ll concede that point.)

Fred was a generous man, giving of himself in so many ways. In an attempt to emulate his niceness, I’m going to make you an offer. If you’d like to read the book, and you can’t find a copy available through your public library system, I’ll buy you a copy of it. That’s how much I admire this man and how much I enjoyed this book.

I expect you to make an honest effort to find the book at your library. If you don’t find it available, drop me a line at Include your mailing address. I’ll send you a copy of the book. I ask only that you pass it on to someone else (or donate it to your library) when you’re done, OK?

(I think I should mention that the book is valuable as either biography or religious tract [or both, as for me] so if you aren't a Christian, you'll still enjoy it.)

(By the way, the little contest I hid in a previous blog had to do with this offer. The hidden message said that whoever deciphered it would get a prize. This book was the prize. So, to Rhea and James and Friday 18, who attempted to really solve it, you’ve got a copy coming if you want it. I need your mailing address, so give it to me and your prize will be on its way.)

(The “code” was simple, if not readily seen. Starting with the first letter in the gobbledygook sentence, use every other letter to form a real readable sentence. Then, do the same but starting with the second letter instead. Follow this same formula for the second and third gobbledygook sentences. There you go! And I realize now that I may have left the third section a bit out of whack for the code to work perfectly. Oh, well. You're getting a prize anyway, so no need to complain.)

(If you still don’t understand, drop me a line and I’ll truly spell it out for you.)

I realize I’ve only covered one aspect of what I asked you concerning children’s television. I’ll pick it up again later this week and discuss some of the other topics you were kind enough to give me opinions about. Tomorrow and the next day, however, I have other things to write about that are more time-sensitive. For one thing, I received an award! I’ll tell you about that tomorrow. See you then.


James Cooper said...

Geez, I should've seen the full message. I went back and can't believe I didn't notice that there were alternating messages within the code. I suppose this is why I never made it past simple number substitution cryptography :-P

I have a lot of fond memories of growing up watching PBS childrens shows, particularly Mister Rogers Neighborhood. I'm not a religious person myself but I have always respected Fred Rogers for his incredible adherence to the gentleness, understanding, and acceptance prescribed by his faith. It's not an easy thing for any human to do but there are a handful of folks who pull it off and I place Fred Rogers amongst them.

Thanks for sharing this great post with us, Suldog. It brings back a lot of great memories and will supply me with a good feeling throughout the day. I'll get in touch with you about the book (even though I feel shame for not seeing the full code) and hope you and YOUR WIFE the best.

David Sullivan said...

I had a girl friend that used to call me "Mr. McFeely"... he, he

Unknown said...

Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man Suldog. I only watched the show a few times, but the man still had a tangential affect on my life. When my son was three or four years old he started to stutter. We took him to a speech therapist, and this therapist must have noticed the fast pace at which my son's parents speak. She told us to talk like Mr. Rogers whenever we were around our son. We were faithful about talking real slow whenever he was around. That gave him a chance to talk without tripping over his words. Thank goodness his stuttering went away in a few months, the slow talking was driving us nuts! It had a lasting impact on me, my conversational speech is much slower than it was before, but not as slow as Fred's.

Anonymous said...

I am not at all surprised to learn that Mr. Rogers was a minister.

Had he not been ordained, however, his sweet nature, and his concern for all living creatures still would have made him one of the greatest lay ministers of all time.

The world would truly be a better place if we all tried to carry a bit of Fred Rogers with us every day.

T. :)

(still a huge fan of Daniel Tiger)